Know Thyself and be Surprised
By Isra Yazicioglu
[Abraham] said: ‘I do not love those that set.’ (Qur’an, 6:76)
Whoever knows himself, knows his Lord, Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said. In this essay, we intend to undertake such journey of self-discovery, which will lead us to exciting destination of encountering the One Creator. As our main tour guide in this journey, we shall take Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s insightful reflections on the Quran.
Who are we? In answering this question, the starting point is our needs. Nursi repeatedly observes that human beings have needs that are “spread all over the world.” For instance, if we were to jot down our physical needs, the list would be so long, and would require us to go for shopping to all corners of the universe! Even if the vegetables and fruits we are looking for may come from a farm nearby, we need much more than a farm. We need the bees who pollinate the plants we eat, the bacteria who work for the recovery of necessary nutrients in the soil, and the solar system and seasons that bring in the sunshine and the rain as well as the air. It is not an exaggeration at all to say that when a human being breathes, eats, drinks and walks, the entire universe, with various species, ecological systems and ‘laws of nature’ are implicated at the background!
Moreover, we are not only physically but also emotionally connected to the rest of the world. Human beings have immense capacity to relate to, to care about, and to love so many beings, from our close friends to the unknown faces we encounter in the news, from the sunrise and to the ring of Saturn. Indeed, unlike other creatures, the capacities of human being do not seem to have a natural limit. Our capacity of love and attachment, for instance, is boundless. The list of what we can desire, love or appreciate has no boundaries! On a related vein, when we only consider physical enjoyment (aside from emotional, intellectual and spiritual joys) human beings have the most intense connection to the world. Our taste buds, for instance, has the widest spectrum among all animals. Unlike other animals, we don’t just consume certain foods; we are able to enjoy an incredible variety of food.
And, with our immense capacity to love and connect, we easily get attached to any creature displays beauty and perfection, and anything that offers kindness and benefit to us. Did you ever feel like you cannot love another cool thing or one more nice person because your love capacity was exceeded or saturated? Unlikely! Our human heart can absorb an infinite variety of loves. Moreover, the human heart has a deeply rooted longing: eternity. This strong love for eternity lies under all of our loves: when we love anyone or anything, we always bracket out our beloved’s finitude. Could you genuinely get attached to someone if you saw him as someone destined to leave you sooner or later? Nay, the human heart cannot truly love but the eternal or the semblance of eternity. We want eternity in one way or another; we all long for love, happiness and beauty to never end.
In sum, our journey of knowing who we are first takes us to the realization that what makes us human and connects us to the rest of the universe is our profound neediness and yearning for eternity or for endurance of fulfillment and happiness. As Nursi repeatedly notes, it is this comprehensive neediness that enables us to appreciate all the beings around us that meet our needs, and make it possible for us fall in love with so many things around us. Each human being is thus a microcosm, a small being that contains the entire universe or cosmos in itself.
Now, in the second step of our journey into who we are, we encounter a deep sadness. It seems like our endless needs yield endless suffering. While we have so many physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs, the world around us tantalizingly gives us only a taste, without satisfying us. Moreover, given the continuous flux in the world, nothing remains, all our beloveds depart without a farewell: aging, degeneration, separation and death proves to be the end of all beauty and love. Consequently, our boundless neediness and yearnings bring us boundless pain.
Nursi never loses sight of the fact that our sorrows come precisely from being human: only a human being fully connected with the rest of the universe can feel pulled up short when he cannot have it all. Only a human being who feels connected to others can be hurt by the sadness of others or injustice done to them. And, only a human being who can yearn for eternity will be hurt by the finitude. As long as we do not attempt to suppress our humanity by being blind to our needs and vulnerability, this sadness is incredibly meaningful. Our heart cries out, like Abraham in the Quran: “la uḥibbul āfilin,” [I do not love those that set]. (Quran, 6:76). We shall dwell a bit on this cry and on this pain, in order to see how it is actually labor pain—announcing the birth of something extremely precious.
Thus, in the second step of our journey, we see how our heart’s capacity to love and connect becomes a source of pain. Even our great intellect, which enables us to think and remember, becomes a painful tool. After all, only a thinking being can see on the face of one separation that other separations are imminent, and that someone’s death announces everyone else’s death. As Nursi notes, the intellect in this second step of the journey can turn into “an ill-omened, noxious and debilitating tool that will burden your weak person with all the sad sorrows of the past and the terrifying fears of the future; it will descend to the rank of an inauspicious and destructive tool.”
Moreover, the intense human connection to the world and his love for the beauty, perfection, and pleasure becomes unbearable because the beauty seems fleeting, the perfection seems unattainable and all the gifts of life are tainted with temporariness or fana. Indeed, since we deep down long for eternity, all our pleasures as well as our virtues are dependent on it. When we realize that the world and our own selves are finite, our human ability to care, to be devoted to, to appreciate, to be faithful starts to fade away. Why care about a world that treacherously leaves you, why worry about the happiness of others if there is nothing you can do for them, and why be committed to our loved ones if all is to vanish soon? In fact, human love for beauty can even metamorphose into hatred. In order to console ourselves in the face of impending separation, we as the lovers of the beauty, can start cursing it and feel miserable about life, which excited us so much in the beginning. Nursi tells of a symbolic story to clarify how we may end up there. One time a famous beautiful woman expelled from her presence a man who was deeply in love with her. The man, who was hurt by this separation, consoled himself by denying his infatuation with her beauty and called her ugly. His insult on his former love is not shocking. For, human beings easily become hostile to what they cannot reach, and hate the beauty that is unattainable. Hence, as Nursi perceptively notes, a human being “would only be able to cure the deep wounds caused by eternal separation from an Absolute Beauty that he loves and whose value he appreciates through enmity towards it, being vexed with, and denying it.”
Now, at the end of this second step, we realize that we ended up with contradictions. Our precious human capacities, including our comprehensive connection with the world and our capacity to think, seem to bring us nothing but suffering. Moreover, we end up equating the beauty in the world with ugliness. Fortunately, we have very good reasons to question these contradictions. First, the abundant wisdom reflected in nature challenges the contradictory conclusion that all our human capacities are useless. Moreover, the world displays too much beauty to be in reality a thinly veiled ugliness. The pain and disillusionment that we experience as human beings must mean something else, and indeed it does. At this second step of the journey of knowing the self, we have encountered the dark night of the soul. As we pursue further into this darkness, authentic to our reality and taking into account the heavenly guidance—the last version of which is the Qur’an– we get the glimpses of a wonderful dawn.
II. The paradox and the pain we ended up with at the second step of the journey is a sign that we made a mistake along the way. As we review our steps in the journey, we note that the first step of recognizing our intense neediness, and our capacity to be curious about, to relate to and to love the world was fine. There is no mistake about that and there is no way to do away with our intense neediness and comprehensive connection to the world around us. We swerved only in the second step, in interpreting our comprehensive needs and connections. For, we thought we are to try to fulfill our needs on our own and to simply get attached to things that seemed to display beauty and benefit. Instead, the light of Quran, like other revelations of God sent to humanity before (via prophets Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and many others, most of whom are not even named) shows us that our needs and loves are actually signs, pointing beyond this world to the Eternal One. They are our mounts in a journey into genuine happiness and joy through connection to One God.
Indeed, our endless needs overwhelm us only when we surmise that we depend on our tiny will and the rest of the creatures to fulfill them. Such interpretation is very stressful: how can we ensure that the world works in such a way that meets our needs? How can we make sure this passing world somehow satisfies our endless desires? It is a scary and painful thought. Yet, hunger is terrifying only when we think that the resources are limited and we are constantly haunted with scarcity and the possibility of merciless starvation. In contrast, when we realize we are seated at a great feast, our hunger becomes a privilege, an opportunity to truly enjoy the banquet!
Similarly, our needs become a liability only when we think we are just randomly thrown into a world of scarcity to struggle on our own. Our needs and human weaknesses become our painful enemies only when we forget that they are given to us for some lofty purpose, by someone Merciful, Powerful and Wise. In fact, this pain is an invitation for us to heed the voice of the revelation, and take a moment to reflect: why do we crave for so many things beyond our control? Why do we yearn for eternity if we are merely finite beings? These questions take us to our key transportation, so to speak, in our journey: our needs and yearnings actually connect us to a Source of our existence and endurance, the Generous Provider.
Indeed, our comprehensive needs become our ‘travel pass’ into so many ways of experiencing the beautiful qualities of the Eternal One. With hunger we get to enjoy God’s generosity manifested in food and drink, through weakness we enjoy being taken care of, through fears we rejoice in safety, and through our need for love that we enjoy the Loving One’s gifts of family and friends. Indeed, our worries regarding our past and future and about the world around us, our yearning for eternity, and our diverse and infinite needs all become tools to enjoy the Divine gifts. Nursi gives the metaphor of an organism producing joy and gratitude to explain the wisdom behind intense human neediness and vulnerability:
Human being is an ‘organism’ who is grieved with thousands of different sorrows and receives pleasure in thousands of different ways. Despite his utter weakness, he has innumerable enemies, physical and spiritual, and despite his infinite poverty, he has countless needs, external and inner, and is a wretched creature continuously suffering the blows of death and separation.
Yet, through belief and worship, he at once becomes connected to such a Glorious King that he finds a point of support against all his enemies and a source of help for all his needs, and …takes pride at the honour and rank of the Lord to whom he is attached…
Just as with the increase of hunger the pleasure we get from eating increases, by recognizing our inherent weakness and poverty, we can enjoy seeking refuge in and trusting the Merciful and Powerful One. Our different needs are like different ‘stomachs,’ enabling us to enjoy an incredible variety of pleasures. Thus, our needs become windows to the bounties of the Creator. The human being then becomes filled with gratitude. If it were not her need for food, for health, for friends, and so on, human being would not be able to appreciate the divine gifts and recognize the beautiful divine names those gifts point to, such as the Sustainer, the Helper, the Generous, the Powerful, and the Wise.
Thus, the world is full of signs pointing to the One, both in their glitter and in their passing away. In this new perspective, the human being’s experience in the world, including seemingly harsh experiences, become meaningful and peaceful. After all, if it were not for sickness, we would not appreciate the beauty of healing and health and get a glimpse of the beauty of the name of God as the Healer. And, if it were not for heartbreak, we would not be able to be conscious of beauty of being loved and thus connect to the Eternal Loving One.
Moreover, our endless connections with others, which initially seemed to be a source of immense grief, become a gift. Because of our capacity to care about others, we are able to pray for others, and their joy becomes our joy, enabling us to enjoy the power and compassion of the Creator more. Moreover, when the we become aware that our relations with the others are not limited to this temporary world, our ability to care about and commit to our loved ones will be enhanced. Furthermore, in this new picture, each of the human faculties has a higher function. The intellect, for instance, becomes a key for unlocking the Divine wisdom in the universe, while the eyes becomes a beholder of the Divine art all over the world.
Indeed, human beings’ needs and vulnerability are special gifts that distinguish them from angels. For, “even the angels cannot know [these Divine bounties] in this manner.” After all, the angels don’t get hungry nor do they fall sick or experience separation as we do. Indeed, Nursi notes that it is this comprehensiveness of human nature that made Adam (upon him be peace) the representative (khalifa) of God on earth and earned the prostration of angels before him, as the Quran narrates (Q. 2:30-34).
Similarly, with the light of faith, our yearning for eternity before a world in flux becomes an asset. We see that with all its continuous flux the whole flow of life highlights the Eternal One, who can and will fulfill our need for eternal beauty. To use another metaphor by Nursi, the world is like a river running under the bright sun: each creature comes to this world, shines with the manifestations of Beautiful Names of God in differing levels, becomes a “sign” of God’s mercy, power, knowledge and love, and then leaves, declaring that it is just a mirror, and not the Sun itself. Since the source of all these shadows, the “Pre-eternal Sun of the universe” is eternal, one need not be overwhelmed with the temporariness of the light of “bubbles” flowing in the river. When we realize that the source of all beauty is enduring, we will stop being devastated with separation. Instead of spoiling the pleasure, the flux in the world will increase our pleasure, for it reveals different manifestations of Eternal beauty and power.
We need to conclude our brief essay here, but the journey goes on and is open to us all. As we thread our unique journeys, let’s keep in mind that journey to everlasting happiness starts here and now. As Nursi has noted in the light of the Quran, in being authentic to ourselves we discover keys to the One who has ‘wired’ us for connecting with Him, the source of all power, beauty and love.
 I am grateful to Dr Yamina Bougenaya and Dr Ali Mermer for their immense assistance in appreciating B. Said Nursi’s approach to the Quran.
 B. Said Nursi, The Words: From the Risale-i Nur Collection (Istanbul: Sozler Publications, 1998), 577, 623, etc.
 Nursi, Risale-i Nur Kulliyati, Vol.2, (Istanbul: Yeni Asya Yayinlari, 1996), p. 1163.
 “Man stands in need of most of the varieties of beings in the universe and is connected to them. His needs spread through every part of the world, and his desires extend to eternity. Just as he wants a flower, so he wants the spring. Just as he desires a garden, so does he also desire everlasting Paradise. Just as he longs to see a friend, so does he long to see the All-Beauteous One of Glory. Just as in order to visit one he loves who lives somewhere else, he is in need for his beloved’s door to be opened to him, so too in order to visit the ninety-nine per cent of his friends who have travelled to the intermediate realm and so be saved from eternal separation, he needs to seek refuge at the court of an Absolutely Powerful One Who will close the door of this huge world and open the door of the hereafter, which is an exhibition of wonders, and remove this world and establish the hereafter in its place.” Nursi, Kulliyat, Vol. 1, 136; Words, 328.
 “If there was no imagined immortality [of the creatures] there would be no love [for them].” Nursi, Flashes: From the Collection of Risale-i Nur, trans. Sukran Vahide (Istanbul: Sozler Publications, 1995), 31.
 Words, 368; Kulliyat, 157.
 I.e. the things that go away and fade. (Qur’an, 6:76.)
 “One separation [from the beloveds] causes endless destruction [in the heart], for it heralds many more separations.” Words, 586.
 Words, 39; Flashes, 29-30.
 Nursi, The Rays: From the Collection of Risale-i Nur, trans. Sukran Vahide (Istanbul: Sozler Publications, 1995), 242-245; Kulliyat, 962- 964.
 Flashes, 460; Kulliyat, 827. “Most certainly He would not endow man who is both His beloved and His lover with an innate enmity and cause him to be vexed with Himself from afar; He would not endow man’s spirit with a hidden enmity which would be altogether contrary to man’s nature, who is by his nature the most lovable and loving creature and the most exceptional that He has created for worship. For man would only be able to cure the deep wounds caused by eternal separation from n Absolute Beauty that he loves and whose value he appreciates through enmity towards it, being vexed with, and denying it… It is from this point that the enmity towards God Almighty of the unbelievers arises.” (Ibid.)
 Rays, 229. (Vahide’s translation with my minor modifications and emphasis added)
 For instance, Nursi talks about “stomach of life,” whose channel of nourishment is our senses, and “stomach of humanity,” which enjoys all the feasts prepared for human intellect and imagination. See: Flashes, 456, Kulliyat, 825-826,
 Flashes, 466; Kulliyat 586.
 Words, 39.
 Kulliyat, 825 [my translation]; cf. Flashes, 456.
 Words, 254; Kulliyat, 98.
 Words, 710; Kulliyat, 311.
 “The world is a book of the Eternally Besought One. Its letters and words point not to themselves but to the essence, attributes and Names of another. In which case, learn its meaning and grasp it, and let go of its apparent glitter…The world is also a tillage; sow and reap your crop, and preserve it and let go off the chaff! The world is also a collection of mirrors that continuously pass on one after the other; so know the One Who is manifest in them, see His lights, understand the manifestations of the Names which appear in them and love the One they signify. Let go of your attachment for the fragments of glass, which are doomed to be broken and perish…” Words, 221 (with my minor modification in translation); Kulliyat, 78.